I ordered this book with great anticipation, because I’ve been following the Frugalwoods since they still had a secret identity. There’s a small community of people on the path to financial independence who are sharing their progress through blogs, podcasts, newsletters, et cetera. Obviously not everyone can come out publicly and say, “We’re quitting our jobs soon” without suffering repercussions. Meet the Frugalwoods is not just the story of a young couple who escaped the rat race; it’s also the official debut of a pair of superheroes ripping off their masks.
The premise of a frugality book is always that anyone can do this. With enough information and enough gumption, anyone can live on little money. That makes it more or less the opposite of a book on entrepreneurship, career growth, or stock market investing. There are lots of paths to financial freedom. Elizabeth Willard Thames and her little family happened to choose the classic path of voluntary simplicity. Not to put in too many spoilers, but they saved hard, learned to DIY a lot of manual skills they hadn’t been taught in childhood, and wound up buying a house in the woods.
I’m also a frugal person - seriously, you should have seen my annotated paperback copy of the Tightwad Gazette - and it was fascinating how the Thames family had almost the exact opposite financial priorities that I do! My hubby and I are city dwellers, partly because it enables us to live car-free in a small space we don’t have to furnish or maintain. While I would never again take in used furniture, after a close friend’s brush with bedbugs, I’ve never been much on clothes, cosmetics, beauty treatments, shoes, etc. We also don’t drink alcohol. It’s probably a good thing this book exists, because it shows a path to financial independence that’s more broadly appealing than my personally idiosyncratic version.
The book tells the story of how two young people made decisions and chose their path in life, the path that led to that house in the woods. There is some excellent stuff in here about how couples negotiate and influence one another, how they juggle priorities and nudge each other’s behavior. They cut each other’s hair. A married couple working as a team can achieve financial independence much more quickly than they could separately, if only they know how to talk to each other about money without quarreling. The Thameses should consider teaching workshops about financial communication!
One strength of the book is that Thames spells out the ways that she and her husband, and their families, benefited from privilege. This is a topic I’ve never seen addressed in a personal finance book before. She also mentions that they have a special type of investment set up to enable them to make charitable contributions. I really appreciated this and took notes.
Thames managed to save $2000 of her $10,000 AmeriCorps stipend. While living in New York City. This helps to explain how the two of them were able to save 40-50% of their take-home pay; not only did they commit to frugality, they also enjoyed the benefits of avoiding debt. Meet the Frugalwoods has a lot of specific advice about how to plan and save, how to hunt for bargains, and how to assess spending patterns. The results surely support the examples. This is a path to freedom that could be within reach of anyone who wants to travel it.
Frugality opened my mind up to what I can do with my life, as opposed to what I can buy.
Possibility thinking is not the same as optimism. This is a common misconception. I consider myself an extreme optimist, yet it’s not for amateurs. Extreme optimism can lead to really poor outcomes when it’s based on denial or refusal to confront reality. Possibility thinking is a skill that requires acknowledging the possibility of the worst outcomes as well as the best. The Stoics called it premeditatio malorum, or thinking of evils in advance. This is why pessimists can gain at least as much from the discipline as natural optimists can.
I know a few extreme pessimists. I keep them in my social media feed because I find them oddly endearing, at least in small doses. These super-pessimistic friends don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. One of the main traits that they share is that they are nearly impervious to support, compliments, and expressions of empathy, even as they complain that nobody is ever there for them. Another is that they are virtually incapable of gratitude. They are quite angry whenever anyone dares to suggest that something might be going well for them. These are dangers inherent to extreme pessimism. Alienating people who want to be your friends will inevitably shrink your pool of allies and emotional support. It also eliminates the vast majority of opportunities that other people automatically receive from being part of a more conventional social network.
Simply stop rejecting other people’s offers, and things start happening. People vouch for you. People introduce you around and you form more loose social ties. You start to make more friends and acquaintances, you start to get invited to more events. You start hearing about more opportunities, like job postings, vehicles or stuff for sale, road trips, roommates, pets that need a home, maybe even a future spouse. A crotchety, curmudgeonly person loses out on all of this. Over the years and decades, it really builds up.
Possibility starts with pessimism as soon as someone realizes that pessimism is only one of the many responses that are available. Attitudes are not set in stone. Perspectives are infinite. Negativity itself can come in uncountable forms, and one particular negative response is only one option. See?
Pessimism is a smart place to start with strategic planning. It’s just not a smart place to end.
Travel. Start with the assumption that every single thing will go wrong. Assume you’ll forget your passport and your ID, assume you’ll get to the airport without your prescriptions or your glasses, assume you’ll lose your keys and that someone will steal your wallet and your luggage will get lost. Assume that every single leg of your trip will be delayed and every connection will be missed. Assume that your hotel rooms will all be given to others and you’ll have nowhere to go at midnight. Assume you’ll show up on the wrong day. Assume you’ll get food poisoning and the flu. Assume you’ll fight with your travel companions. Assume you’ll come home to a burst pipe and an insect infestation. Pessimistic starting assumptions are part of how you learn to foresee issues and form multiple backup plans. These negative forecasts also help you learn to appreciate how special and rare it is when everything works properly. Most of all, pessimistic assumptions help to generate an attitude of acceptance instead of outrage, dark humor rather than disappointment.
Romance. Start with the assumption that your crush is a bad person with a lot to hide. Do your due diligence. Assume that this person does not share your values and is not safe to introduce to your family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers. After my early divorce, I used to say that I would never get married again without a credit report, a criminal background check, a psychiatric assessment, and a blood test. This impressed my future husband, who says this bizarre boundary meant he would get the same information from me that I was demanding from dates. It helped him to trust me. When you do find someone solid, someone who has passed all the gates, then you know to appreciate and respect this person as a worthy mate.
Finances. Start with the assumption that you’ll outlive your money by at least fifteen years. Inflation will come for you and you’ll be physically unable to work about ten years earlier than you had thought. Assume that various bad actors are out to defraud you, sell you things you don’t want or need, and trick you into paying hidden fees and high interest rates. Know that the stock market will crash, defined as a 30% decline in value, at least two or three times between now and your desired retirement date. Believe that you have an inner spendthrift, that you will constantly try to delude yourself by rounding your income up and your expenses down. Optimism is a good propellant for pursuing career advancement, but it’s probably more dangerous around the topic of money than anywhere else.
Health. Start with the assumption that all the research about longevity, fitness, and nutrition is true. Assess what you know about the individuals in your family tree and assume that their health problems will also be yours. Here is where pessimism should stop. It’s a fixed mindset fallacy that genetic tendencies are fate, carved in stone, when really a tendency is just a tendency. We have information and interventions that were not available to earlier generations, and it’s prudent to make use of it. Pessimistically assume that one day, Future You will berate Today You for not trying, for abdicating and procrastinating and passively awaiting the worst outcome. Isn’t it more pessimistic to regard Present Self as an ignorant, lazy procrastinator who avoids the necessary hard work and self-discipline, than to see a more efficient body as somewhat attainable?
There’s no particular reason why any individual person couldn’t... let’s see... go on a trip, meet a new love interest, pay off debt, start a business, or get stronger and more agile. The same person could also move to a new home, adopt a pet, study a musical instrument, or learn a new language. Why not? Really, why not? A pessimism that denies options is not realistic or pragmatic. Pessimism can be a useful tool, but it’s only one of many among a thinking person’s cognitive assets.
How do I write about hedonism without making it sound all sexy? This is a serious question. In fact, there are few things that are more serious than the ways that pleasure overlaps with morality, and we tend to oversimplify all of that by making it about sex. I’m a very shy person, and I have no intention of going there on this blog. What I have noticed, though, is that my people (my clients, my students) are really poor at identifying things they like and enjoy. They’re also really poor at imagining a positive future for themselves. Here are some of the hardest things I’ve asked them to do:
Describe your perfect day
Make a list of things you enjoy
Tell me your favorite
What would you like to happen between now and this time next year?
This area is wide open for research. Is it something about depression and anxiety that prevents people from enjoying themselves and imagining better times? Or is it this disconnect from pleasure that perhaps leads to anxiety and depression? Does this all just have to do with the amygdala being activated or something? I think these ideas are objectively testable. As with everything, of course, we can test ideas on ourselves. Say it with me: does it work, or does it not work? Does it work for you, or does it not work for you?
One of those ideas we can check is the idea of sin, or morality in general. I’ve noticed that my people tend to moralize about things that simply aren’t moral issues. “I was bad.” Ooh, naughty. One of those areas is housework, another is money, and another is food and body image. A close friend of mine was trained from childhood that a clean house is morally virtuous and that household dirt is shameful, perhaps evil. THIS IS A MATTER OF OPINION. I keep a clean house because it’s a cheap workout and because otherwise I can’t find anything or think straight. I also like how it looks, feels, and smells, and more on this later. Many people have been taught that money leads to evil, which is a bummer, because most of these same individuals would probably be terrific at fundraising for charity if they allowed themselves to think that way. A million volumes could be written on all the ways we’ve been taught that certain foods are “decadent” or “sinful” and how we’re “bad” or how we’ve “been good” for eating in certain ways. If we want to be decadent and sensually indulgent, my dears, there are so many better ways...
There are zero, zero rules for what you can find pleasurable or not pleasurable. Nobody else can tell you whether you like something or don’t like it, just as they can’t tell you what emotions you are feeling. As you learn to inhabit your body more fully, you’ll be more aware of what you do or don’t like and what you are sensing and feeling. Not knowing is a promising sign that you have a lot of fun experiments ahead!
Also, it’s nobody else’s business what you enjoy privately. The reason so many people cherish time alone is that this is when we get to do all the stuff we like to do. For instance, when my husband goes on a business trip, I watch horror movies and eat eggplant for dinner, because we don’t share those delights in common. It’s nobody else’s business what you listen to on your headphones, how you season your soup, or what you choose for your favorite colors.
There are a bunch of things that are commonly perceived to be pleasurable or fun, things that I personally dislike. Start with the word “pampered.” UGH! That will only ever make me think of disposable diapers. Also, I despise being waited on or having very attentive customer service. I’m shy and independent, and I distrust flattery. I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure, although I’ve bought them for men I’ve dated, because it sounds awful to me. Two words: toenail fungus. In fact, just stop at the word ‘toenail.’ Let’s see, what else? I don’t like alcohol or coffee, I think cheese is revolting, and there are a lot of desserts that turn me off. I don’t like croissants, gummy candy, or anything with powdered sugar or syrup. I don’t care for chocolate either.
Each and every one of those items that I dislike are things that another person would love. That’s awesome. More for you!
I’m attentive to what I dislike or find ‘blah’ or uninteresting, because one part of expanding into pleasure is avoiding the icky stuff. This is an existential position. Practical philosophy! I believe that I have the right to move toward things I love and enjoy, and the right to say a firm NO to things that I don’t. This is a radical, revolutionary position. A lot of us don’t necessarily believe that we really exist, that we have a right to our own opinions. This is something that can take a lot of work, something that is worthy of exploring with a counselor or therapist. Why shouldn’t you wear socks in your favorite color, listen to your favorite musicians, or say “no thank you” when you’re not interested in eating something? Huh? Why shouldn’t you?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from coaching is that each of my clients has a highly idiosyncratic, negative story behind whatever painful, ineffective thing it is that they’re doing. That’s why I really mean it when I mean that you should put serious thought into why you think you’re not entitled to basic pleasures or basic, fundamental boundaries. Because you are. Of course you are!
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of pleasurable things you can indulge in won’t affect anyone else in any way. They don’t even have to know. If you like cutting your sandwich on the diagonal one day and horizontally the next, go ahead!
I’ll go on to say that claiming pleasure for yourself has a positive ripple effect on others. It helps as a foundation of strength, something that supports you as you do difficult things, like contributing at work, serving others in your life, volunteering, being a good citizen, or taking on challenges and quests. Pleasure nurtures you, helping you to avoid burnout, draining the boil of irritation or futility that you might otherwise spatter on others, venting and complaining about various miseries. It’s pretty hard to feel pleasure and annoyance or disappointment at the same time. Trust and believe that most people would rather hear about something enjoyable you did than something that frustrated you, unless of course you were able to make it into a funny story.
Spending time in nature, either physically or virtually. The phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset, clouds, stars, the weather. Trees, landscapes, flowers. The sounds of wind, water, birds - I’ll never forget the first time I heard a fox bark. Pictures of mountains, the ocean, the surface of Mars, anything that increases your sense of awe and delights your eye.
Visual delights. Color. Symmetry or asymmetry. Scrolling through museum collections online. Gazing into the middle distance. Changing your phone wallpaper a lot.
Music. Which is greater: the pleasure of listening to a beloved song over and over, or the pleasure of hearing something that captivates you for the first time?
Fragrance. Gardens in your area. Soap. Lotion. Candles. Spices. Home cooking. Removal of bad smells. Nostalgic scents like pencil shavings.
Sleeping. Probably the single most underrated pleasure of them all.
Exploration. Adventure. Learning new things. Anything that you find inspirational, anything that ignites your sense of curiosity, anything that impresses you or makes you want to know more, should be pursued. Learning new skills is an entirely distinct pleasure, the satisfaction of efficacy.
Storytelling. Story sweeps us away like nothing else. The great thing about the internet is that there’s so much out there, from blogging to fanfic to podcasts. Not everyone likes comedy but most people appreciate storytelling.
Connection. Snuggling with pets. Dancing. Working in groups. Singing in a choir, or so they tell me. Hugging - some people like it! Deep listening.
Pleasures of the body. This is a subject for a book of its own, but food is only one of the many, many ways the body can experience pleasure. I think it’s actually the weakest and fundamentally the most boring. Describing the pleasure of waking up as a well-rested, nourished, fit, active, strong, supple body is like giving people directions to the unicorn rides. Nobody believes you. It’s like a religious experience that you can only understand by living it for yourself. Shake it off and think of something else. Physical warmth, massage, stretching, working out a kink in your neck or shoulder. Sighing, deep breathing.
It’s possible to live surrounded by beauty, indulging in pleasures throughout the day, and still be a productive, caring, ethical, morally correct person. This is an affirmation. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it because it’s what your friends and loved ones would want for you. Do it because it sets a good example for your kids or for other young people, for other humans in general. Do it because it’s good for the economy. Do it because nobody would begrudge it of a shelter dog, so why not you? Do it because nobody else will notice and nobody else will care. Do it as an experiment. Do it in the nature of philosophical exploration. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything else, at least just pause, stretch, take a deep breath, and allow the idea that pleasure is okay for someone, somewhere in the universe. You think?
The biggest problem with both procrastination and getting organized is knowing where to start. This is because knowing there’s a system is not the same as understanding and using a system. People who think of themselves as procrastinators or as disorganized have a strong suspicion that life is easier for other people. They’re right, too. One of the main reasons is the awareness of a system, and another is a bias toward action. Just get started! Getting started when you don’t feel like you really even know how to get started can happen when you learn to spot the no-brainer.
What is one thing you can do right now?
What’s a tiny piece that’s so small, you’re sure you can do it in just a minute or two?
What’s so obvious that it doesn’t even feel like you actually did anything?
What is so simple that you don’t even need to explain it or describe it?
A no-brainer is simple, obvious, and easy. Sometimes there are a bunch of no-brainers, and sometimes maybe there’s only one. It doesn’t matter. The secret is that finishing one step makes other steps more obvious.
What is simple and obvious to one person is not necessarily simple or obvious to someone else. For instance, it’s easy for me to know how to eat a burrito because I grew up eating burritos. It’s not so simple or easy for me to WRAP a burrito, though! There’s a trick to it. I always wind up putting in too much stuff, and then it starts to unwrap and everything starts to drip out of the bottom. I know I could learn to do this if I wanted to. I could watch a YouTube video and practice it a bunch of times.
Everything is on YouTube. I’ve used YouTube videos to help me figure out how to wrap my headphone cords, clean a shower door track, open a pomegranate, and fold fitted sheets.
“Getting organized” and “procrastinating” are different, though. That’s for two reasons. One, neither of them has a specific, objective definition and each person’s organization or procrastination problem is different. Two, almost everything written about these topics was developed by people who are very well organized or highly productive. What works for them may not work at the novice, disorganized level.
Where videos or tutorials come in is when there’s a specific task or skill to be learned. Maybe I can’t learn how to “be organized,” but I can look at a bunch of pictures of organized refrigerators or read an article on how to set up a filing system. I take it one piece at a time. Each part of my life and my personal environment that I “organize” makes it easier to figure out the next part.
I believe that procrastination comes from not knowing how to go about doing something, not liking it, feeling pressured by external expectations, and not knowing about mood management. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do something if I hate doing it and I’m rebelling against it. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do it, if I don’t know how to make myself do it. If I know how to fight my procrastinating types of moods, though, I can push through and learn how to do the specific small tasks involved.
How do I write an outline? How do I make a mind map? How do I create and name files? How do I write an effective email header? What format should this report be in? How do smart, competent people effectively admit that they’re still learning how to do something?
Start by writing out a list of everything you don’t know, everything you don’t know how to do. Why are you stuck? Give it a name. This is how you figure out where to start. Which question seems the hardest or the most embarrassing? Okay, tackle that one last.
Procrastination and disorganization usually tend to go together. What’s funny about this is that the feeling of procrastinating on a deadline is sometimes the only thing that can motivate someone to tackle minor cleaning and organizing tasks. I didn’t want to do my ironing until it was time to clean the oven. I didn’t want to clean the oven until it was time to do my taxes. I didn’t want to do my taxes until it was time to work on my book proposal.
What happens in the case of the procrastination bustle is that we realize we are surrounded by no-brainer tasks and chores. We feel intuitively that once we’ve cleared the slate, we can retrieve some of our mental bandwidth. Once something is done, we get to stop thinking about it. It’s a puzzle that we’ve solved. We can look around and see that it’s done. This is done, that is done, this is done, that other thing is done. The more we get into the habit of doing the obvious, the more types of things eventually become no-brainers. Sort the mail. Put away the groceries. Hang up the coats. File the papers. Write the outlines. Submit the proposals.
Every day, we do obvious no-brainer activities that were once too hard for us. Eating with a fork! Putting our shoes on the correct feet! Memorizing our phone number! Finding a parking spot! Buying groceries! Paying bills! We build skills as we grow older and more experienced. We get more done as we realize that it’s faster and easier to do it right away, rather than stewing over it.
Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get moving. It’s a way to feel smarter and more accomplished. It’s a way to get ready and build momentum. Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get started and, eventually, a way to be finished.
This is a story of a stack of money that could have disappeared, but didn’t. Granted, it might be more interesting to talk about that money if it did go bye-bye. Everyone can identify with that, right? There’s more value in the story that not everyone knows, the story of how losses can be avoided through strategy and careful study. If you’re tired of being broke, the first step is to avoid losing what you already have or getting into further debt. It can be done!
It’s IRA time. Before your eyes glaze over, let me quickly explain what that means and how it works.
Not too confusing, right?
I wish I had paid more attention to this sort of thing when I first started out, because I definitely would have found a way to come up with that money, and it would have turned into tens of thousands of dollars by now. I was saving $50 a week even when my take-home pay was $220. This is money I don’t have because I was too bored to read basic instructions or spend 20 minutes setting up an account. ANYWAY...
It’s close to tax time, and my husband reminded me that we needed to fund our IRAs so we can get the deduction. We are extremely serious about saving money, so much so that we live in a studio apartment and we don’t own a car. All we had to do was to transfer the money from our regular bank to E*TRADE, where we keep our retirement munneh. Takes like 10 minutes.
We’ve been talking about this pretty much for a year, so funding our IRAs was not a decision point. We didn’t need to discuss what we were going to do; we just did it. This is a massive, huge help. Taking action on something that you understand, when you feel confident that you know what to do, is just exactly as easy as ordering a pizza. Maybe even more so!
Our position is subjective. It’s a matter of personal opinion. It’s a policy decision that we’ve made independently, based on what we think about current events, the economy, future trends, planetary alignments, or whatever. Lots of other people can and do make different decisions based on their own personal opinions and positions. My husband and I both like pineapple on our pizza, while recognizing that lots of other people don’t, and that’s fine. The truth is that those people are wrong, pineapple on pizza is delectable, and it always will be. The truth about investments is that one position may pay off very well in one year, and not pay off in a different year, because conditions change all the time.
The main risk is in saving nothing. Living on 100% of what you make, or living off credit cards because you actually spend more than you earn. I’ve been there, I get it.
Back to the story. I now had $5500 in cash in my IRA account.
Nice, flat green American dollars.
Those dollars belong to Old Me. Future Me, playing with her Future Phone, riding around town in her flying car and wearing a metallic body stocking. You’re welcome, Future Me!
What I’m supposed to do is to then use my nice, carefully saved $5500 and buy shares of various stocks or funds or bonds (*snort*) with it. As that money sits in cash, it is not technically an investment. It won’t earn a single penny in interest, no matter how long I leave it there.
A lot of people do this on accident, not realizing that their IRA account is basically just an electronic envelope to hold their money. (Or collect dividends, which I think of as “money babies.”)
Okay, so. Here is where it starts to get good.
My hubby and I had both already decided to leave our 2017 IRA contributions in cash, because we anticipate a significant market drop. We have our own separate investment accounts, and we make our own decisions, because we earned that money from our own careers and we have our own strategies. This is a type of diversification. Cognitive diversification! We do our own research and our own analysis, and we trade notes. As it turns out, my investments outperformed his last year (heh heh heh) and sometimes he buys into some of the same stuff that I do. We high-fived after transferring the money.
THE VERY NEXT MORNING
The market tanked!
My 5500 nice flat green American dollars are still sitting in my cash account, untouched by the ravages of a 734-point market drop. (Followed by ANOTHER drop of 425 points the following day!)
If I had bought shares of anything off my shopping list, they would have been worth less later that same day. I would have lost a bunch of my IRA money within just HOURS of “investing” it.
Not sure if I would have cried or punched a hole in the wall, but...
Instead, I laughed. I laughed because this time I saw it coming. I didn’t know it would happen that fast, but I was stone-cold certain that in “the very near future” my shares would be worth less than they are now. In fact the value of my investment portfolio did drop over $1000 that day, but that’s okay because it’s still worth more than it was when I started. I also believe it will be worth more in three years than it is today. More importantly, I believe it will be worth more in 25 years, when Future Me comes to claim it.
I’m not good at math - if you don’t believe me, come out to lunch with me and watch how long it takes me to calculate the tip. If someone like me, someone who started out flat broke, with poor arithmetic skills, can learn how to invest, then probably anyone can. The main thing is that you have to take the needs of Old You as seriously as you take the needs of Today You. That tends to make you careful and attentive.
If you don’t have an IRA account set up, call someone at your bank, or if you hate making business calls as much as I do, you can probably do it on their website. If you want to get into investing for the first time, hang onto that money. Then start watching the headlines. When you start to see panic about record drops in the stock market, find a nice index fund and put your money into it. Pretend it isn’t there until this time next year. In the meantime, see if you can find a way to put aside $100 a week, or $20 a week, or $5 a week, or even $1 a week. Future You is going to thank you for it.
The only thing better than a book by one of your favorite bloggers is when the book turns out to be even better than the blog. Eric Barker is in my top ten list, along with probably everyone else’s, and Barking Up the Wrong Tree has just locked that down. This is an incredibly fascinating read that may turn everything you think about pop psychology upside down. It is indeed, as the subtitle says, “the surprising science behind why everything you know about success is (mostly) wrong.”
Why is this book so great? It’s because Barker has been researching and writing in depth about these topics for years. More than that, he has a knack for illustrating concepts with historical examples and storytelling. Where else are you going to find anecdotes about submarines, drug cartels, mixed martial arts, Genghis Khan, Spider-Man, and Batman all in the same book?
The research behind Barking Up the Wrong Tree is bound to stir some inner resistance in most people. There are so many findings that contradict common wisdom, and that will probably also conflict with some closely held values. One is that making your boss happy is more important to your career success than your actual performance. Essentially, if you please your boss, even mediocre performance won’t matter, and if you annoy your boss, excellent performance won’t matter either. I can practically feel the temperature rising as steam comes out of ten thousand pairs of ears.
There’s so much to surprise, delight, challenge, confuse, frustrate, and ultimately impress readers. Optimism and pessimism, introversion and extroversion, grit, creativity, altruism, willpower, networking, success, and even hostage negotiations have their place here. If you’re ready to have your mind changed about a wide array of cultural assumptions, make sure you’re not Barking Up the Wrong Tree and read this book.
“Cognitive biases prevent us from understanding cognitive biases.”
“TO-DO LISTS ARE EVIL.”
Happily married people always want to play matchmaker. This is exactly the same as how people who drive always want to convince non-drivers to get a license, and how people who watch TV meet people who don’t watch it and want to tell them about various funny commercials. I’m a contrarian about many things - I don’t drive, watch TV, or drink coffee - but I totally get it about matchmaking. The reason we do this is that companionable, long-term relationships seem so simple and straightforward to us. Our single-and-hating-it friends could be dating someone by the end of the month, we’re sure of it. It’s obvious to us that you’re as eligible as anyone else. Why don’t you see in yourself what we see in you?
A lot of my clients and students are lonely, long-term singles. In many cases, they see it as their biggest pain point. I always want to interrogate this and find out, from a married person’s perspective: Why are you single?
Disclaimer: Plenty of people prefer to be single and aren’t interested in dating. That’s awesome! I think it’s best if people who are happily alone choose to stay that way, rather than trying to force themselves into relationships. It’s more fair to the potential partners, who will instead meet people who do want to be paired up with someone.
The main practical reason my long-term singles aren’t dating is that they set themselves up that way. They only socialize with people they’ve known for a long time. If there were going to be a spark with any of the people they already know, it presumably would have sparked. Obviously, if you want to date someone you don’t know, you have to then somehow meet people you don’t know. You won’t necessarily date the person you meet, but each new friend you make will connect you to their friends, relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances. Blocking yourself from meeting new people means blocking dozens of platonically friendly faces.
The hidden, impractical reason behind this social isolation is inevitably self-loathing. My people think of themselves in the most negative light you can imagine. They think of themselves as losers, as failures, as ugly, as unlikeable. Present them with conflicting reports, such as that they have a close circle of friends, or that people have publicly said nice things about them, and they wave it off. They often think that their friends are just tolerating them or just being nice. Dude. There are over seven billion people on this planet right now. Nobody needs to pretend to like you. If someone is talking to you, it’s because they want to!
Let’s evaluate this objectively. If two people who don’t know each other say the same thing about you, accept it as true. Logically, you have to regard compliments as factual in a way that you don’t with insults. A vulgarian Rude Person will insult anyone and everyone, even yelling out a window, without knowing anything about you. A friendly person who likes you has every reason to have thought about you more than a mean person has. So, if someone says you’re good company, intelligent, talented, helpful, funny, well-read, or whatever, then it is an objective fact.
This is the thing about self-loathing. It comes from a fixed mindset. It comes from believing that certain traits are your personality, permanent, set in stone, unchangeable. That’s why something a kid might have said to you in first grade can still rankle in your mind. The thing is, romance is about behavior and communication, just like friendship is.
This is part of why self-loathing repels romance. Absolutely nobody is going to want to listen to you denigrate yourself, call yourself names, mope around feeling like the ugliest and worst person. If they’re attracted to you, they might pause to try to talk you out of what they see as a glum mood. If they see this self-pummeling as a chronic behavior, they’re out the door. At the minimum, if you hate on yourself, you can’t do it verbally. What are you trying to do, convince someone to believe that you’re awful? Be the prosecuting attorney of your own horrible personality?
What do people do in happy relationships? We talk to each other about random stuff. We laugh and develop private jokes. We ignore each other while tending to our own interests. We generally don’t do romance-novel things or rom-com movie things. My last conversation with my husband, while he was on a business trip, involved my keen interest in what he ordered for dinner and his sharing about the travails of using an obsolete GPS. Long-term love is low-maintenance! It has to be. We’re just like two sparrows hopping around a parking lot. We have wings, but we don’t use them all the time.
Who has the energy?
Look, if you’re old, there are other single people exactly your age who’d love to sit around with you doing whatever it is you do. If you have a nerdy hobby, that’s actually a major plus. If you’re fat, hey, guess what? Over 70% of Americans over age 20 are overweight now. That puts you in the majority. If you feel awkward and lonely, welcome to the real world because so do most of us.
Think of it this way. Rate your various characteristics on a scale of 1 to 10. For instance, my singing is like a 3. There are plenty of other people whose singing is also between a 2 and a 4, so I’m not ashamed. In fact, I think my terrible singing is hilarious and useful as a comedy skill. Nobody was ever going to date me for my musical abilities. Another person with a beautiful singing voice will have a lot of opportunities that I don’t have, and in fact someone may fall in love with him or her based completely on that vocal power. I’m not competing with them, though. My husband says he married me for my frugality. See how neither of those traits have to do with appearance or social skills?
I’m a nerd, if you haven’t already guessed that, and so is my husband. Nerds should date one another. A nerd/non-nerd relationship isn’t going to last long. Popular, attractive nerd traits include having a large vocabulary, being well-read, believing in empirical reality, lack of interest in bars/nightclubs/malls, and lack of emphasis on superficial appearance, among others. If you’re a smart, nerdy person, you’re automatically more interesting to a fellow intelligent person than an ordinary, physically attractive person would be. Trust me, I’m a Mensan.
Back to what I said about competition: Romance isn’t a competition. You’re going for a click with someone, and it’s either there or it isn’t. Someone out there is just going to dig you. They like how they feel when they’re with you. They like talking to you. There are things about you that they find appealing, and nobody else they know is just like you. Ducks and crows can figure this out even though they all look exactly alike! Someone out there is just going to like sitting next to you. It’s really just that simple.
The easiest way to solve the problem of self-loathing is to quit doing it. You won’t have to try to pretend you like yourself if you actually do like yourself. You belong in this world. You’re useful, I promise. Would you call 911 if you saw someone in trouble? Yes? Great, then you belong here! We need you! If you met someone and you liked each other, would you be nice to this person? Yes? Great, then you have everything it takes to be in love. Write this on your hand and get on out there.
I wake up without an alarm. That’s because my upstairs neighbors are up and walking around at 6:00 AM. (Our previous upstairs neighbors were up and running the washing machine at 7:00, so is this an upgrade?).
Productivity bloggers are constantly bragging about how early they get up, and all the productive things they do at 5:30, or 5:00, or even 4:00 in the morning. Sometimes I believe them, and sometimes I don’t. I’m skeptical, because when I first wake up, I’m useless.
I’m an extreme night owl. It runs back at least three generations in my family. My most alert and productive time of day is 10 PM, and it has been since I was about thirteen years old. Waking up early is challenging for me, and having done it over a longer period of time hasn’t really made it all that much easier.
Since I set my own schedule, I can work whenever I like. Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing good work after midnight, and I’ll stay up until 2 AM. I pay for it, though. It turns out that the rest of the world doesn’t stop just because I decided to work an odd shift. No matter how tired I am, no matter how late I stay up, the rest of the world goes on doing the things it does.
TIME TO WAKE UP
I’ve tried and tried and tried to sleep later into the morning. Where I live, even when it’s quiet, it’s too hot and bright. Usually it isn’t quiet.
Birds (crows, gulls, mockingbirds, sometimes roosters)
Where we live right now, there are some Baby Boomers who like to play their stereos out the window. You can tell, partly because of their musical tastes, but mostly because they’re the last generation that feels entitled to just blare their music all the time without using headphones.
Anyway. It is what it is. The truth is that most of the world is diurnal, and for those of us whose natural rhythms are out of sync, failure to adjust is personal stress and pain.
It’s my choice to adapt myself to the world, rather than indulging in frustration that the world won’t adapt itself to me.
I’ve tried earplugs and white noise generators and eye masks and herbal teas and prescription sleeping pills and meditation and changing my diet and hot baths and a whole lot more. I once went into my doctor’s office with a huge tote bag full of all the sleep aids I had bought and shook them out onto the examination table. “Wow, you must be really frustrated!” They sent me to a psychiatrist to rule out a brain tumor. The only thing that has really worked has been to just... sigh... go to bed earlier.
It took years. The other night, I went to bed at 9:00 PM and was asleep half an hour later. Ten years ago, there’s no way I could have done that. I would have gone to bed and lain there for at least three hours, possibly five. The hardest thing about the journey to early mornings is that it takes so long. Tiny increments.
What happens is basically that your digestion system starts doing the work for you. If you wake up and eat and drink on a schedule, very quickly your body adjusts and wakes you up. Or, rather, your bladder does. If you stop eating and drinking for the day at a certain hour, you can fall asleep and stay asleep without that bladder alarm going off at inconvenient times. This is the main reason that “morning people” can wake up without an alarm. There IS an alarm, it’s just an internal one.
Eating and drinking on a schedule also regulates your sleep and appetite hormones. Any other hormonal issues should also be supported by this.
Every time I talk to someone with an insomnia or parasomnia problem, it turns out that they eat meals at different times every day. They don’t have a “lunchtime” or a “dinner time” and they often don’t eat breakfast, either. They tend to be workaholics who grab snacks whenever they get a chance. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this could contribute to erratic sleep patterns.
Natural daylight and exercise are natural to animals. Why are squirrels so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Well, I’m pretty sure they’re born with the tails. Animals and birds that live outdoors wake up hungry, and if they want to survive, they need to start scurrying. I think about this a lot as I force my sleepy self out the door.
I take a morning fitness class at a gym that’s a little over two miles away. I walk there. I don’t do much in the morning before I go, partly because my morning routine involves NOT DOING as much as possible. If you want to “be on time,” you have to rule out almost everything except getting dressed and locking your door behind you.
What do I do?
My schedule is different each of the seven days of the week. That’s due to the class schedule at my gym and my scheduled club meetings. What changes for me is which bag I grab. On weekends and Wednesdays I take a shower first and wear regular clothes. That’s all. Keep it pared down.
I do all the activities that the “morning people” write about. I keep a journal, I meditate, I read and write for several hours a day, I talk to clients and work on my business. I’m extremely organized with my finances, my stuff, my housekeeping, my nutrition - basically everything else about my life. I just don’t do any of that stuff when I first wake up. Are you kidding me?
I work with chronically disorganized people. The reason I write about my skepticism about mornings is that I know almost all of us share this in common. We aren’t alert or cheerful or driven before the sun comes up. Most of us are chronically late because we don’t have much of an internal sense of time passing, and when we’re tired we are mentally scattered. We have to recognize that the only way for us to have a streamlined morning is to consider “wake up early” to be a monumental challenge, all on its own.
Pro tip: If you want to transition to become a “morning person,” do all of the organizing and support toward that in the afternoon or evening. Set yourself up to simply be able to wake up your body. That’s plenty to be going on with.
Procrastinating is due for a disruption. I think it’s much more complicated than it appears, and that a lot of the time, we bash ourselves with those feelings quite unfairly. What if what we’re doing isn’t really procrastinating?
Over a quarter of Americans are chronic procrastinators, which is way more common than being a smoker or a diabetic. The prevalence has also gone up nearly 40% in the past quarter century. This increase can probably be blamed almost entirely on the advent of cable television, followed by the internet, streaming video, online gaming, social media, et cetera. We certainly know how to entertain ourselves!
Procrastinating means “putting forward to tomorrow.” The interesting thing about it is that we define it for ourselves. Everyone procrastinates on different stuff, and what’s difficult for one person is easy or fun for someone else. We may feel like we are procrastinating on doing stuff even when we don’t have an external deadline or standard that we need to meet. Even when we are being our own boss, choosing our own projects, and doing stuff based completely on our own initiative, we can still judge ourselves for being “lazy” or for procrastinating. Isn’t that a little weird?
Putting something off until tomorrow isn’t always procrastinating. Let’s think about this. Usually, it’s a sign of good planning! We can’t do every single thing the minute the thought crosses our minds. At least, that’s what the receptionist at my dentist’s office tells me. Sometimes, choosing to do something later has no impact at all, like if I delay watching a TV episode or decide not to have a PBJ sandwich for lunch until later this week. It’s only the stuff we believe we really, really should be doing right now that counts as procrastinating. We’ve chosen something that, rationally, we think is the most important, best, and most urgent use of our time. Then we’ve made a decision to do something else instead. That’s extremely fascinating from an existential standpoint!
Even more interesting, rather than find a way to take action, we fill the time either trying to distract ourselves with mindless activity, mentally flogging ourselves, or wallowing in self-criticism, anxiety, dread, and other helplessly negative emotions. Procrastinating usually feels terrible.
On top of the horrid feelings that go with stalling, delaying, foot-dragging, indecision, mental paralysis, and looming deadlines, and am I stressing you out just describing them? Along with all of that come the ramifications. Missed opportunities! Missed deadlines! Regret! Shame! Failure! Disappointment!
Nobody would choose this.
Nobody would rationally choose procrastination. It borders on logical fallacy. If you can only procrastinate by putting off something urgent and important, then procrastinating is deliberately sabotaging your own circumstances. I happen to think that there’s actually something else going on.
Let’s get a little deeper into it.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. Some of my people have issues with hoarding or squalor, but while those three conditions tend to overlap, some people only deal with one. That’s because the root emotions are different for each person, sometimes astonishingly so. The big difference for the chronically disorganized is that they just do not know what to do. They don’t have any systems, or, rather, the systems they have are far more convoluted and time-consuming than necessary. While my people struggle mightily with following a schedule and being on time, they aren’t choosing to do it. They just lack planning skills, and their inner sense of time passing is set differently. I say “they” when I really mean “I.” People like my clients and I feel a minute as more like 90 seconds. It’s fair to say that chronically disorganized people suffer the same results as chronic procrastinators, even though they may never have made conscious decisions to procrastinate.
It’s not that we put something off until later, it’s that we never technically planned it in the first place!
Procrastinating is often little more than not knowing how long something was going to take, not realizing how many steps were involved, not being aware that it’s already too late to get something done.
Another way to get the same results as a procrastinator without really procrastinating is to be a people pleaser. A lot of people are almost totally lacking in boundaries, and will thus say “yes” to everything in a sincere attempt to be helpful. It’s like having a leaky boat. A pleaser will always “overpromise and under-deliver” because the promises aren’t even really promises, and they’re made so quickly that it would be impossible to even remember them all, much less follow through. This warm, friendly sort of person will not meet deadlines because the point of the commitment was to demonstrate caring and connection, not to actually DO a THING or to show up to an event. The desire to make someone else happy was real. The over-accommodating person who continually promises too much is not procrastinating, but really more turning an emotional dial to ‘please love me.’ Action, production, and execution aren’t even part of the image. This person does not know just how much frustration, disappointment, confusion, and sometimes pure rage is being inflicted on anyone who believed the over-commitment would be kept.
Work projects tend to be procrastinated when the procrastinator doesn’t really know how to approach the project. Most people can do even the most boring or annoying work tasks, grumbling and muttering but cranking them out. The stuff we procrastinate at work tends to be either administrivia, which we rationally judge is not relevant to our work goals, or large-scale projects with longer deadlines. We just don’t know how to break these projects into manageable chunks. We don’t know how to create longer, uninterrupted blocks of time. We don’t know how to delegate or negotiate. We don’t know how to communicate with our supervisors and admit that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We don’t know how to shift gears into System II thinking and get into the zone of focus on demand.
We often think we’re procrastinating on personal projects like “getting organized” or “losing weight” or other loosely-defined objectives. If we knew what to do, I think we’d be doing it! We have the internal sense that our lives would be easier if we did these things, that we’re missing out on something that works nicely for other people. It’s not that we’re procrastinating, it’s that we have no idea where to start.
We don’t know Future Self. Future Me feels like a total stranger, an annoying old person who is constantly asking me for more money. Thinking about the needs of me, myself at some later point in the timeline just feels like such an unfair burden. Why should Future Me get everything? What has Future Me ever done for me? We don’t know how we’re going to feel later on. If we’re well acquainted with the helpless, horrible feelings of chronic procrastination, we may simply feel that going into a shame spiral is a fitting punishment for being a useless, procrastinating loser failure. As though negative self-talk or self-punishment ever actually helped to accomplish anything or meet deadlines?
Isn’t the point to get something done? A specific thing? Add “insult myself” to the list for later, because doing it now is actively interfering with the stated goal.
The main reason we procrastinate is that we don’t know what done feels like. We can dimly imagine the relief of getting out of this rut, this hell of our own making, this trap that we’ve thrown ourselves into. What we can’t imagine is the thought process or the course of action that actually led to the doing of the thing.
One thing that helps is to write out a list of everything you don’t know. Every question you have about the project, every place where you’re stuck, every piece of the job that frustrates or confuses you. Sometimes there is an answer. Sometimes, in the most interesting work, the answer is something you create on your own! Usually, clarifying the questions helps to make at least tentative steps toward a course of action.
Another thing that helps is to just get started. Tinker around the edges of the project in some way. Open a file folder. Write an outline. Draw a mind map. Try to figure out any two-minute steps that could be done without thinking too hard. Go through the motions and the stuck feeling can start to dissolve.
Fighting procrastination is a skill that can be learned. It is possible to get rid of this tendency. It is possible to learn enough skills in project planning and time management so that it quits being a problem. The dread of putting off something important always feels so much worse than actually doing the work. Just get started.
The rote sayings and adages that you hear as a broke person surrounded by broke people are completely different than the sayings that you hear uptown. For one thing, I’m finding that upper-middle-class people seem to talk about almost nothing but poor customer service, remodeling, and the bodily functions of their pets. As a kid, I often heard adults talk about being “a day late and a dollar short.” It’s an interesting exercise to think about the opposite of everything, and it intrigued me to start thinking about always being “a day early and a dollar up.” What would this mean?
The idea of being “a day late and a dollar short” is that even if I had managed to show up on time, to, say, the county fair, it wouldn’t have mattered. I couldn’t afford it anyway. Even if I had the money, something would have prevented me from getting there. I shouldn’t bother to get my hopes up or to set my heart on anything. This is the world of broke-ness. Your transportation is unreliable, you can’t depend on a predictable work schedule, the people you want to bring aren’t available for one of a thousand reasons, none of your stuff works, and every penny you manage to set aside is almost automatically burned up by pressing material needs. Fun is not for you. Resign yourself to deprivation and exclusion.
This is a self-perpetuating mindset.
The convenience store where I got my first real paystub job is still open at the same location. It’s still open all day, every day. There is still someone working there on the same schedule that I worked in 1993. It could be me. There are no practical reasons why I could not have spent the past 25 years standing in the same spot, wearing the same uniform, and presumably selling the exact same pot of coffee and the exact same four rotating hotdogs. Pumping orange nacho cheese out of the same plastic sack, selling the same blue-dyed frozen corn syrup drinks, peddling cigarettes, malt liquor, and scratch tickets to the same sketchy neighborhood dudes. I’d still have trouble making my rent, I still wouldn’t be able to afford a car, and I’d still wonder why toothpaste has to be so darn expensive. The simplest solution was always just to find a better-paying job somewhere else. Which I did.
Almost every problem I had in those days was a financial problem. The great thing about money problems is that they can be solved with money! A problem that can’t be solved with the application of cash dollars is a sad problem. Heartache, disappointment, grief, betrayal. Everything else is up for reconsideration. Having more money means being able to relocate, repair and replace things, hire lawyers or financial planners, get advanced education or professional credentials, take lessons, get medical care, make emergency travel plans, take time off work, help friends resolve their problems, and donate to various charitable causes.
Having money also means being able to plan ahead. One of the worst aspects of being broke is that your future timeline contracts. You start planning only a month ahead, or a paycheck ahead, or a week ahead, or a day ahead. You become unable to imagine what your life might be like in three years or ten years. Feeling like you have plenty of money and plenty of options helps to extend that figurative timeline.
I only worked at that convenience store for two months. I’m pretty sure I can still remember every minute of every shift. Purgatory looks a lot like a convenience store at 10 AM on a Sunday morning, with a never-ending line of people waiting to buy one cup of coffee and a newspaper. I had no idea what I would do with myself while I stood behind that counter. I had no idea how that job would ever lead to anything better. It never really crossed my mind to go back to school, which I eventually did, because I was so sure that college was out of my reach. My take-home pay exactly equaled my rent. I was living off microwaved baked potatoes with no butter; obviously I wasn’t saving money or planning for the future. When I got a full-time office job, I tripled my pay. SEVEN DOLLARS AN HOUR! I saved over 20% of my take-home pay every week. That’s when I started planning ahead and thinking that I could make goals.
One of the first things I did was to save money for my first international trip. I took three weeks off - insane for a nineteen-year-old - and went to New Zealand.
Last year, my husband and I went to Wyoming to see the solar eclipse in totality. We found out it was happening a year in advance and set a reminder for January to book tickets. I got the last available hotel room in Jackson and paid for it with reward points. We bought our plane tickets, still available and significantly cheaper eight months in advance. My husband put in his vacation request with plenty of time to spare. If we’d waited, we wouldn’t have been able to get there at any price. These are the kinds of things you can do when you save money and plan ahead. We did in fact get to town six days early.
The less FoMO we have, the less of a sense of scarcity, the easier it is to put money aside. We only take out our wallets for the can’t-miss stuff. There have been dozens of concerts we would have liked to see, sure, and nights we would have liked to go out and eat in a restaurant. Doing these things every time the urge arises means a strained schedule, burnout, debt, and weight gain. It’s not a relaxing way to live. We like to maintain our domestic contentment at home, inexpensively, and go out for the really great stuff. It’s a completely different experience to always feel like you’re a day early and a dollar up.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.